No Instruments? No Problem!

Teaching remotely can be a real challenge. Teaching music remotely can seem impossible! Students often don’t have the resources or instruments necessary to participate in traditional activities. However, I’ve found great success in this first month of online learning by using found-percussion. Just like STOMP! students are clapping, slapping, and taping their way to success using anything that they can find. 


I was more nervous at the start of this school year that any in recent memory. It wasn’t just the obvious threats, but also the fact that I was feeling like a brand new teacher again. I had no idea what activities to try, I couldn’t estimate pacing, or if I had enough planned. I didn’t know what materials my students had available or how they’d react to the lessons. However, after a little over a month of teaching, I feel like I’ve hit a nice stride in my practice, finding that many of my additional concerns were unwarranted.

Use what you have:

I have students who take piano lessons in their home and join my class by setting their iPad atop the grand piano in their living room. I also have students who attend my virtual classes from the closet in their room because it’s “quiet.” Inequality and access issues are nothing new in education, but I was really struggling with overcoming it. How can I approach my lessons with equity so that all students can access the content? The answer is all around you. Found percussion is using any object you can find to make music. It’s not strictly atonal, but rhythmic approaches are much easier. I use the video above to introduce the idea, a wonderful collaboration between New York percussionists STOMP! and the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters. In the video, they use stomping (duh) and basketballs (duh) to make a fantastically catchy rhythm. Plus it has dunking, so even if your students aren’t into music, they’ll definitely be entertained.

Cup Rhythms:

One of my goto units during a normal school year I was drawn to using this early one in the year anyway. The Cup Song, as performed by Anna Kendrick in the movie Pitch Perfect, is a standard that you’ll be surprised many of your students already know. There are countless guides online and on YouTube, so I won’t go into it here. I can talk about how I teach the song and the different approaches I use in my class.  I actually don’t even begin with the cup song, but rather a simple rhythm activity called “Hiccup Buttercup.” We’ll start with a whole class activity that develops rhythm, when teaching in person it also practices the whole collaborative aspect of the song, but with online learning, I just skip the whole “cup passing” thing. Then we watch the full cup song, take a step back and watch the tutorial, we’ll practice whole class several times. While the video is playing I’d look for students who are demonstrating a high level of proficiency aka they already know it. I typically will use these students to lead small groups, breakout rooms, etc, to teach their peers the cup song and rhythm. I’ve found that students are much more receptive to learning from peers and the ones who know the cup song are always more than happy to help. We’ll come back together as a class, and then play it together (obviously no cup passing if remote) with the goal of playing along to the original Anna Kendrick video which is admittedly very fast.

Video playlist:

Cup Song Alternatives:

Use the cup rhythm and play along with existing songs. I start this with the funny YouTuber parody, The Handshake Song. It’s great because it’s the exact same rhythm as the cup song and so students should have an easy time accessing this. I edited down the long YouTube video to just the nuts and bolts I needed for class. (here) and we played along with the cup. If this was a normal year, this is a great extension to have kids try and then eventually make their own handshakes. However, it definitely opened the door to using the cup rhythm for different songs. So the next thing we tried was applying the exact same cup rhythm to a new song. I found a video of the cup song being played to Uptown Funk and just took it from there. We played along to an instrumental version and then I split students up into small groups allowing them to find their own songs and trying to play along.

The problem with the popularity of the cup song is that you occasionally run into a class where most of the students are already proficient in it, and get bored quickly. Or maybe you have a group of quick learners and have some extra time to fill in your lessons. Either way, it’s always good to have a few alternatives to the cup song up your sleeve. John Kanaka is a great tool for that. It uses the second half of the cup song and incorporates it into a simple call and response. This old sailing song is catchy and is different enough to challenge students to learn something new. If you are up for a real challenge, you can abandon the traditional cup rhythm altogether and try something new. I found myself teaching for the first time a new cup activity. Another music teacher shared this with me, and although my students were initially frustrated by it, the now like it even more than the original!

Video playlist:

Pen Tapping:

This was really popular, and the bane of my existence, about 6 years ago. I even had a student perform pen tapping for the talent show. However, it has since fallen out of popularity and now teachers can lecture in peace…. until now! I’m bringing it back. All my students better have a pen, marker, highlighter, etc. There are many different variations that go from easy single pen rhythms, to double pen non-dominant syncopated snare rhythms. There are even ways to notate the rhythms you create using iconic notation. Something I thought was really cool was I found this tutorial on the basics of pen tapping by YouTuber Kevin316 from all the way back in 2013, but I also found many other beats and tutorials from him over the years. He’s now all grown up and beside it being neat to see a person age in an instant, it shows your students that the progress he made took years of practice and hard work.

Video playlist:

A great extension to this lesson, and one that meets several music standards, is using iconic notation to read and write your own ben rhythms. 1 = bass 2 = snare and 3 = cymbal. Apparently, this is pretty standardized and you can find many videos that use the exact same form of notation. So kids aren’t just learning it for in-class activities, but they are learning a skill that they can use to extend their learning beyond the classroom. It’s always neat when students create their own music, but being able to notate it and share it with others is a fantastic way to grow as a musician!

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